4 Philosophical Regions According to Alain Badiou

A panorama of the four main currents of contemporary philosophy with French philosopher Alain Badiou.

May 4, 2022By Tryggvi Ulfsson, MA Contemporary European Philosophy, BA Philosophy
photo alain badiou with world wap 1689
Alain Badiou, 2009, via the European Graduate School


How can one give a general idea of the present state of philosophy? Philosophy is unlike most other theoretical disciplines insofar as there is no agreement on what it actually is. In this regard, it is perhaps closer to the arts than to science. Anyone having gone through a few undergraduate courses in philosophy will know that it is a profoundly divided tradition. So, with that in mind, should we maybe speak of a multitude of traditions and reject the idea of a unifying feature that runs through all of them? Maybe there are only philosophies, but no philosophy? One approach to this problem is pursued by French philosopher Alain Badiou. He describes the multitude of existing philosophical traditions as if they were the different regions of our planet. The study of contemporary philosophy in all its generality turns out to be a ‘descriptive geography’.


The rationale behind this metaphor is that the division of philosophy overlaps the division of our planet into countries and continents. Philosophy does not mean the same thing whether you are, for instance, in the US or on the mainland of Europe. Some philosophers, therefore, have put forward the idea that philosophy must include geophilosophy as a subfield.


The Regions of Philosophy According to Alain Badiou


1. Hermeneutics

martin heidegger smiling
Martin Heidegger, via Counter-Currents


So, what does the philosophical landscape look like in its geographical description? In the opinion of Alain Badiou, contemporary philosophy has three main regions. First, there is a hermeneutical region, which has mostly developed within the borders of Germany. Its key thinkers are Martin Heidegger and Hans-Georg Gadamer.


The defining idea of the hermeneutical region is that reality must be thought of as a mystery that demands an interpretation. For Heidegger, the true meaning of truth has been forgotten. It is not – as the cliché goes – a relation of abstract thought to objective reality. Rather, it is a process intrinsic to reality, namely the unveiling of the mystery of Being through the act of interpretation. Our intuitive idea of truth as correspondence between Being and thought is only possible given the backdrop of this original, deeper idea of truth.

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2. Analytic Philosophy

ludwig wittgenstein in Swansea 1947
Ludwig Wittgenstein in Swansea, Ben Richards, 1947, via The Paris Review


The second region to be found within philosophy is the analytic region. In its heyday, the analytic region was enclosed by the real region of Austria. The capital of Austria, Vienna, was the birthplace of its founder Ludwig Wittgenstein. Vienna also housed his first followers, the members of the Vienna Circle, who met to discuss the ideas of their master. But for almost a century now its main center of activity has been in the hegemonic English-speaking countries, the UK, and the US.


The main idea of the analytic current is to treat any philosophical theory as a set of propositions, which can be analyzed – hence the name – using logical methods. The principal task of logic is to produce explicit rules for determining when a proposition is rightly constructed and correctly derived from another proposition. If a proposition is not rightly constructed, it will be devoid of meaning. The members of the Vienna circle concluded their analysis by declaring that most propositions formulated throughout the history of philosophy do not meet the logical criteria to count as propositions. They are therefore simply devoid of meaning.


3. Postmodernism

Jacques Derrida portrait Mark McKelvie
Jacques Derrida, Mark McKelvie, via etsy.com


Third, there is a postmodern region whose actual physical region corresponds to France. Some of the important names associated with postmodern philosophy are Jacques Derrida, Jean-François Lyotard and Jean Baudrillard.


The defining feature here is a suspicion toward the philosophical ideals of the modernist period that precedes contemporary philosophy. These ideals are, for instance, history, progress, science, and revolutionary politics. Postmodernism will, in short, contend any general vision that could convey a sense of orientation to our current historical moment. As Lyotard puts it, there is no overarching grand narrative giving sense to what happens in the world. There is a multiplicity of ideas, practices, events, but no totality that keeps all of those together.


The Limits of the Geographical Metaphor

World Map 1689 Amsterdam
World Map, Gerhard van Schagen, 1689, via Wikimedia commons


As Alain Badiou readily admits, the idea of philosophy as composed of different regions has its limits. The different traditions existing within contemporary philosophy cannot be understood directly as the different parts of one globe. One major problem with the metaphor is that each region will redefine the globe according to its own partial point of view.


A philosopher living within the hermeneutical region will not see it as a mere region. Rather, hermeneutics will deliver the true meaning of philosophy. For Heidegger, a genuine philosophy must think Being in its original unveiling. For him, analytic philosophy is merely concerned with the derived propositional form of truth, while postmodern philosophy rejects truth altogether.


The case is similar for analytic philosophy or postmodern philosophy: insofar as philosophy has any value whatsoever, it must be analytic or postmodern, depending on the case. Both traditions reject the bulk of what has been produced outside of their region. This is of course the real manifestation of philosophy’s divided state: its different constituents cannot even agree to disagree within some common framework.


But this is also where the different regions come together, in their shared aversion for traditional philosophy. This is apparent in the pervasiveness of the theme of the end of philosophy. Heidegger rejects the entire history of Western philosophy as the gradual cover-up of the way ancient Greeks thought Being in its truth. Analytic philosophy rejects traditional philosophy as mostly non-sense. Postmodern philosophy denounces it as totalitarian in its ambition to uncover one truth behind the multitude of perspectives. Friedrich Nietzsche, arguably the father of postmodernism, described the invention of knowledge and truth as mankind’s greatest and most arrogant lie.


A Better Way of Thinking About the Variety Within Contemporary Philosophy

white on white malevich painting
Supremacist Composition: White on White, Kazimir Malevich, 1918, Museum of Modern Art, New York


We are getting closer to Alain Badiou’s point. What hitherto has been presented as the different varieties of philosophy are only so many ways of giving up on philosophy’s mission, namely the quest for truth, wisdom, and knowledge. Let us consider again the configuration of the three regions. As Badiou rightly remarks, each region is formed in the linguistic turn of philosophy in the early 20th century. Rather than attending to reality itself, each region is a way to realize the research program to investigate how the real is captured in language.


For analytic philosophy, this is obvious. It examines philosophy as the construction of propositions. Its main question is that of the meaning of the propositions. Postmodern philosophy inherits its interest in language from linguistic structuralism. Some of their best insights are gained from dissolving the presuppositions of modern or classical philosophy in languages’ production of meaning. The human subject (or at least its unconscious part) is, as Jacques Lacan famously suggested, “structured like a language”. Jacques Derrida went further declaring that “there is nothing outside of the text”.


However, Heidegger’s interest in truth seems to invalidate Badiou’s analysis. But although his truth exceeds its propositional expression, it is firmly rooted in the universe of meaning. The unveiling of being in truth is nothing but the meaningful relationship of a thinking being (for which Heidegger uses the untranslatable German word Dasein) to its world. This justifies Badiou’s decision to name the current started by Heidegger as “hermeneutical”.


Is There a Problem Here?

David Death of Socrates painting
The Death of Socrates, Jacques-Louis David, 1787, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Let us now look at philosophy’s geography from another angle. So, those living within the three regions of today’s philosophy share an interest in language over truth. Is that a problem? Is it not possible that philosophy has turned to the study of language and languages because the question of truth has been saturated? After all, philosophers have been trying to define truth for over 2500 years, without seemingly getting closer to an answer everybody can agree upon. Is it not time for another approach already?


Maybe so. But can we consider hermeneutics, analytic philosophy, and postmodernism as so many new approaches for solving an old problem? Or are they maybe something else entirely? Since the dawn of philosophy in the ancient Greek city-states, philosophy has been about that which lies beyond the surface of appearance. The first philosophers, according to the official canon, wondered which of the four elements express reality’s true nature. (It is, by the way, this true nature that Heidegger claims has been forgotten in modern times’ reign of technology.) Thales thought it was water, while Anaximenes opted for air. After taking his own linguistic turn seeking the hidden origin of language, Plato concludes his dialogue Cratylus by declaring that philosophy must concern itself with things over words.


But, again, is this a problem? Perhaps it is merely a question of finding another name for the sum of the three regions while reserving the term “philosophy” for ancient and modern philosophy? However, even though it might be a good idea to circumvent any misunderstanding, we might have a few good reasons to object to the predominant opinion that philosophy belongs to the past.


4. Badiou’s Fourth Region

Alain Badiou photo
Alain Badiou, via Verso Books


To grasp the problem, we must have some idea of what philosophy in its classical form is for. We know that it is for truth, but what is truth for? This is Nietzsche’s problem: how do we evaluate our core values? And here Alain Badiou’s work once again comes in handy. Truth is for him what conditions any evaluation. It is the fixed point by which we know the world is changing.


From this very schematic definition, we can understand the four properties Badiou attributes to philosophy. Firstly, it is a state of revolt against the powers that be, since its existence is principled whereas the pursuit of power is the prototype of opportunism.


Secondly, it is logical, for it is the only way for thought to stay true to its principles. Logic gets its consistency from itself. It can therefore stay the same while exterior circumstances change.


Thirdly, the thought that philosophy produces must have a universal status, meaning that anyone should be able to understand it and appreciate its value. Indeed, a chief property of truth is that it does not depend on who evaluates it. It is absolute, not relative.


And fourthly and finally, because it is a revolt against the authorities and does not depend on any particular state of the world, philosophy must be a creation and as such involve an irreducible dimension of risk. If it was not something new, it would just reflect some of what exists and thereby lose its universal address.


The True Problem of Hermeneutics, Analytic Philosophy, and Postmodernism

Plato and Socrates Leonidas Drosis at the Academy of Athens
Plato (left) and Socrates (right) at the Academy in Athens, Leonidas Drosis, 2008, via Wikimedia commons


But the three regions cannot be in a logical revolt that affirms universality in a creative act. Their focus on language over truth makes their message necessarily partial. Alternatively, like postmodernism, they embrace the particularity as revealing the bedrock of existence. But how can they then be in a logical revolt against partial power?


It might be natural to think that they will prefer one language as being the only adequate expression of reality. For Heidegger, it is Greek that originally reveals Being. After Greek, it is the language of German poetry that undoes the history through which it has been forgotten. For the analytic tradition, it is the language of science that allows us to judge the adequation of all other languages. But this solution is not a logical revolt against power, but simply the installment of a new power.


Can only a philosopher (Alain Badiou) save us?

Alain Badiou speaking 2016
Alain Badiou responds to Trump’s election, 2016, via The Tufts Daily


So, can Badiou help us avoid skepticism? Admittedly, we’d need a whole new article to explore and evaluate Alain Badiou’s propositions to replace the unity of the three regions with a fourth one. It took Badiou himself almost 500 pages to present his theory of truth in his chief work Being and Event.


In a nutshell, it is a matter of paying attention to what happens – which may have universal value – while working on constructing a concept of such events. This article only purports to indicate that such a concept can provide an understanding of the current landscape of philosophy beyond the regionality of its different regions. A concept revealing the truths of our time can show us that its seemingly different currents are in fact complicit in their anti-philosophical skepticism.

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By Tryggvi UlfssonMA Contemporary European Philosophy, BA PhilosophyTryggvi is a PhD candidate in philosophy at Université Paris VIII. He holds an MA in philosophy from the same university, as well as from Kingston University, south of London. He is finishing a thesis in which he explores the enigmatic relationship between philosophy and mathematics. He has published articles on speculative realism, Alain Badiou, Jacques Derrida, and the great Léon Brunschvicg whose works have sadly become all but forgotten.